Patrick Cash

Let it Be


The New Life, Tom Crewe, Chatto & Windus, 2023, pp.384, £16.99 (hardcover)

Love, Leda, Mark Hyatt, Peninsula Press, 2023, pp.175, £10.99 (paperback) 

In the Christianised Western world, homosexuality has historically been defined by the act. The notorious 18:22 biblical passage from Leviticus, a favourite of the Westboro Baptist Church, forbids the assumed male reader to ‘lie’ with a man as they would a woman; the abominable emphasis placed on the verb rather than the addressee’s specific ontology. In turn, the jurisdictional statutes against sodomitical behaviour were codified into English law as the 1533 Buggery Act, when the game changer Henry VIII shifted powers from the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical courts to the civil. 

The Buggery Act was thorough but non-discriminatory in its application, threatening capital punishment for all non-procreative sex, be it with man, woman ‘or Beast’. One of the first same-sex violations of the act was a Nicholas Udall in 1541, headmaster of Eton, charged with offences against his pupils (he escaped the noose and wound up headmaster of Westminster). It was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that multiple records for homosexual offences were recorded, and the word ‘molly’ entered slang parlance as both a Moll Flanders-esque prostitute and a nascent gay identity: a typically effeminate, homosexual male. 

Tom Crewe’s novel The New Life takes us to the 1890s when homosexual identities had begun to tentatively coalesce from the underground molly- houses to the professional medical journals. The German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing had recently coined the term ‘homosexual’ to connate a sexual orientation in his Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). However, although no longer punishable by death, sexual activity between men remained illegal and it’s in this historical context that Crewe forms the crux of his work: the conflict between a people who had begun to speak out in terms of their identity, the desires of their nature, and a culture’s inbuilt repression through governing acts. 

Crewe constructs the uneven battleground around the pioneering collaboration of poet John Addington Symonds and physician Henry Havelock Ellis. The motor of the plot concerns the co-writing and publication of Sexual Inversion, a book examining the scandalous terra incognita of male homosexual activity in England. Whilst acknowledging a rich debt to research, Crewe notes himself that there’s no deadlock to historical fact; the novel opens in 1894, a year after the actual Symonds died. It’s in the spiritually buccaneering characterisation of ‘John’ that certain passages of The New Life hold particular effect. Symonds as Crewe paints him as an invert well-known to himself, willing to gamble his wife, writing partner and social status on a risky roulette: 

His reputation – as a writer, but most of all as a married man, a father – would be the book’s first and last defence, its only recommendation. He believed that the book would do good, that it would impress on ignorance and intelligence alike the justice of its case. He trusted to the keenness of his pen, the force of his logic. But it would take time to work on the hard mass of public opinion. 

The inevitable corollaries for Symonds’ marriage are not skirted over. John’s struggle within the bars of strict heteronormative society are humanely portrayed (‘I have been disnatured. It is as simple and terrible as that. No man should live his own life in opposition to his nature’), but Crewe reserves a nuanced sympathy for his wife, Catherine. She is prepared to offer John license within the marriage – he moves in his younger, working-class lover Frank to the family hearth as an ‘amanuensis’ – but she will not play the bastion against his will for public disrepute: ‘You wish to take greater and greater risks. That is your business. You may do it on your own.’ In sketching the poignant breakdown of the couple’s vows, Crewe not only heightens the emotional stakes, but also outlines the debilitating personal effects of an unquestioned cultural damnation. 

That is, unquestioned until Henry Ellis enters Symonds’ life. Rather than a second furtive lover, Ellis is a heterosexual man intellectually preoccupied with ideas of ‘the new life’. Against the quicksand of late Victorian social mores, he and his wife Edith envisage a possibility of new utopian ideals regarding issues from socialism to female empowerment: ‘we must live in the future we hope to make’. Therefore when Symonds writes to Ellis on the subject of sexual inversion, the latter’s interest is piqued: 

It was not sufficient simply to distinguish sex from marriage, as he and Edith had tried to do. Only a larger conception of sex, one that comprehended and encompassed deviations – men loving men, for instance – could constitute a new system of morality. Didn’t true freedom, he thought now, depend on this? 

Ellis harbours his own sexual peccadillo, and his marriage to Edith is never successfully consummated for reasons revealed by gradients. However, the heterosexual male perspective, what identity politic might term today as ‘patriarchal’, on inversion allows for an unsentimental assessment of the perceived vice and its carceral punishment, whilst also providing avenues beyond the queer for readers: 

[The letter] ended with a reference to the law. ‘Connection per anum’ was the phrase used. There was something about the baldness of this, the baldness of the link between the act – fascinating in its crudity, as an expression of human need – and the calculated viciousness of the penalty, that horrified him. 

Ellis rationally applies ‘the scalpel of his attention’ to the book, whilst Symonds proffers and collects anonymised lived experience. But the two men’s entire project is thrown into dramatic quandary by Oscar Wilde’s infamous 1895 trial for gross indecency, paving the way for the novel’s ultimate catharsis. If The New Life sometimes flaunts its wider research upon its sleeve (‘the lecture had been about the need for national food safety standards’), the quibble is more than offset by empathic characterisation and Crewe’s elegant writing style. In contrast to a contemporary landscape that venerates the spartan, the reader is offered considered but rewarding forays into linguistic riches: ‘It was how Carpenter and Addington had felt… desire burning you up, too hot to touch. [Henry] understood this: what it is to burn, and to dare not touch.’ 

One of Sexual Inversion’s most effective arguments, as relayed by Crewe, is originated from Walt Whitman; ‘it would be to satisfy Whitman: to uphold morality as the normal activity of a healthy nature.’ It’s this idea that most potently resolves the tension between act and identity. Rather than a deviance from monolithic human nature, true reason finds that human nature itself is as multi-faceted as its expressive actions. The sad irony hovering over Crewe’s novel is that, for all these early battles, homosexuality remained illegal in the UK until 1967. Mark Hyatt’s Love, Leda was written in the supposedly free love London just before partial decriminalisation and contains its own, more irreverent hark to Whitman: ‘I wonder if man can restore God back to his old omnipotence? Jean Cocteau had Orpheus; Walt Whitman had himself. One might as well let people work things out for themselves.’ 

The attitude encapsulates young Leda’s pinball existence. If The New Life is rigorously concerned with ways of living and the law, then Love, Leda is a lighter-winged dance over religion, fucking and work. References to Christianity abound in Leda’s first-person, jocular weltanschauung: ‘Over the fireplace hangs… a small model of a man pinned to a cross. A silent reproach, like having a policeman hanging around all day’ (one is reminded of Symonds’ quote in The New Life: ‘all my life, even in my deepest privacy, I have felt watched’). On the train, Leda notes outside the window ‘odd tombs of God’. Sometimes the invocations feel like being hit with a stick marked the Bible (‘I wake up and find I have been sleeping with Peter and Paul’; ‘the door opens. It’s Eve.’) but the repetition achieves a picture of psychology hedged by the dominant culture. 

The story of how Love, Leda came to be published arouses almost as much interest as the novel. Hyatt was a working-class poet born in 1940, coming of age in the late 1950s, and only gaining literacy in his adult life. After numerous struggles with mental health, he took his own life in 1972, and the unpublished manuscript of Love, Leda remained in the care of a friend for fifty years. It was only when academics Luke Roberts and Sam Ladkin were researching Hyatt’s poetry that they discovered its existence. The novel therefore arrives with some fanfare as a time capsule of lost Soho. Hyatt’s allegedly self-conscious relationship with his literacy perhaps explains the sometime nudity of his nods, even Leda itself, ‘an elegant nickname’, rather heavy-handedly homaging the Grecian myth. Roberts recounts that Hyatt wrote with a dictionary in hand, explaining why the text occasionally coughs up a word like ‘eleemosynary’ or, indeed, the German for world view. 

However, the pace of the narrative crafts a rollicking voice. Leda is a subversive guide with tongue mostly in cheek: ‘He’s rent, but looks like a god (Horus or Set).’ We first meet him on Soho’s Dean Street picking up the ‘man of the day’, and the text is hung around several sexual encounters, one violent. Although Leda frequently refers to himself as homosexual, he also sleeps with three women, his actions appearing to stem from a Catcher in the Rye type aimlessness. The one constant in his life, other than seeking money for his swinging nightlife jaunts, is his unrequited love for Daniel, a biblical man who’s not above exploiting Leda for unpaid servitude. Daniel is not a hugely interesting character and, as such, it’s hard to emotionally engage in Leda’s ‘pain’, but Hyatt does capture the zest of youth overwhelmed by feeling: ‘It’s voluntary love or madness… I see nothing that can bring me happiness in this world other than Daniel.’ 

Part of what contributes to Leda’s aimlessness is his working-class status. In a prescient anticipation of today’s ‘precariat’, Hyatt portrays a twenty-year-old man drifting from Labour Exchange to short-term job stints. The work is monotonous, whether cutting sheets or washing dishes, and his male colleagues don’t appreciate his queered readings of the New Testament where Judas fell in love with Jesus. Hyatt allows us to see a complexly drawn character who’s at a loss because he doesn’t know how to exist; a perennial preoccupation for Leda in the text. He holds a healthy contempt for most other homosexual men (‘I’ve no sympathy for their way of life’), what we’d describe today as internalised homophobia, and instead has to formulate his own philosophy of survival: 

But doesn’t homosexuality provide an outlet for youth and counteract some violence? I think I live without knowing myself and I laugh at the world to kill my pain. 

Reading The New Life and Love, Leda together reveals an affecting upheaval in Symonds’ and Ellis’ visions for a fairer future: seventy years later, Leda plays the jester against a deep nihilism, the absurd a defence against existentialism. In the absence of God, Leda is trying to work things out for himself but those solutions are tantalisingly beyond his fingertips, his life tainted by self-hate. The dramatic climax arrives and seeps away rather too quickly, the text ending with its own reference to Oscar Wilde and an ambiguous empowerment, but Love, Leda works most sharply as a philippic against a still unaccepting culture. That hard mass of public opinion that Symonds wished to change remains preternaturally hard and on the cusp of liberation, the male homosexual identity had manifested not with a utopian bang, but with a listless whimper. Both novels concern how to live as a persecuted minority, in this respect holding relevance to the current anxiety on LGBTQ+ identity playing out across the Twitter sphere, and perhaps the most lasting lesson to be gleaned from their cores is: let it be. 


Patrick Cash is a British-Irish writer originally from Bristol, now living in London. He’s published two plays with Bloomsbury and founded the night Spoken Word London. He holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford, and once lived for three glorious months as a writer-in-residence at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop in Paris. He’s currently part of The London Library Emerging Writers Programme 22/23, working on a collection of short stories, named Nightlife.

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